The many meanings of Anouilh’s Antigone

  • Themes: Culture, France

The French playwright Jean Anouilh's retelling of the Antigone myth was claimed as inspiration by both the Resistance and Vichy supporters. But who was the real Antigone?

Costume design for a production of Antigone.
Costume design for a production of Antigone. Credit: Solange Legendre / BAnQ Vieux-Montréal

The seventeenth-century French tradition of adapting classic Greek tragedies came back into fashion in the inter-war period. Jean Cocteau (La Machine infernale, 1934) and Jean Giraudoux (La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu, 1935) rekindled the Oedipean and Trojan legends in a French present. In parallel, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus wrote plays that presented contemporary political and philosophical views in action. At the crossroads between antique inspiration and modern debates, Jean Anouilh’s Antigone premiered on February 4 1944, while Paris was under Nazi occupation.

The theatre was then a welcome source of entertainment and escapism, as well as a literal stage of an intellectual rebellion against totalitarianism. In Sophocles’ 440 BC play, Antigone, a young woman, stands against authority, embodied by her Uncle Creon. Popular culture remembers her as the pious daughter of accursed Oedipus, following her father in exile and only coming back to Thebes to die for having tried to bury her brother. The Résistance saw Anouilh’s Antigone as one of them:  writer and critic Simone  Fraisse affirms that ‘the spirit of the Résistance recognised itself in her.’ Sartre objected that Anouilh’s play was too kind to Creon, and therefore too conciliatory towards the figure of the oppressor. The far-right saluted the play for revealing Antigone as a ‘little goddess of Anarchy’ who had to be crushed for the preservation of the social order.

Anouilh never clarified the political dimension of his Antigone. His creations are much less political than the plays of Sartre and Camus. Yet Anouilh also mentioned that the writing of the play was prompted by his obsession with the ‘little red leaflets,’ collaborationist  posters that presented members of the Résistance as terrorists ready to kill French civilians to  fulfill their goals.

Antigone obeys the strict rules of seventeenth-century French theatre, inherited from Horatius and Aristotle. The action unfolds through a single plot, in a single space, with no rupture in temporal continuity: Antigone’s fate is witnessed, it seems, under the very eyes of the audience, who would have been familiar with the plot. Antigone is one of the four children whom Oedipus, king of Thebes, had with his own mother, Jocasta, after he killed his father and freed the city from the Sphinx. When the two brothers Eteocles and Polynices fight each other to death, Creon, brother of Jocasta and now king of Thebes, gives a worthy funeral to Eteocles, who was defending the city, and orders that Polynices’s body be left unburied, rotting under the sun. Antigone escapes before dawn to offer her brother the funerary rites, in full knowledge that she will be killed for defying the law.

A frequent misunderstanding sees Antigone as a revolutionary and a rebel. Sophocles, in fact, made her more strictly law-abiding than Creon. She transgresses Creon’s orders because they come neither from Zeus nor from ‘Justice who lives with the gods below’ (l. 450-451). The laws she follows are ‘the unwritten and unfailing ordinances of the gods.’ Aristotle quotes Sophocles’ play as an illustration of Natural Law, as representative of unbreakable principles, woven into mankind regardless of place and time, such as the piety binding family members together. They have a higher authority than the rules set by lawgivers, whose function is not to make up laws, but to see how the principles must be applied in particular circumstances. For Antigone, piety — the duty owed to the gods through the respect due to a dead body — is the highest principle.

Sophocles’ Theban plays already illustrate the characters’ complex response to moral imperatives. In Oedipus King, Oedipus curses Creon, accusing him of having plotted his demise; then is bound by his own decree to inflict punishment upon himself. In Oedipus at Colonus, he curses Polynices for his falsehood. Sophocles gives capital importance to the power of the king’s speech. As a lawgiver, the king utters words that are as binding as divine decrees.

The conflict of authority between Antigone and Creon is at the core of Anouilh’s play. Anouilh winds the tragic spring: a prologue character in modern clothes describes the characters and summarises the plot.  Anouilh transposes the Oedipian tale to the days of fast cars and champagne parties, but his  prologue and the nourrice [wet nurse] who serves as Antigone’s confidant, albeit absent from Sophocles’ play, are direct imports of the Greek theatre. The encounters between Antigone and her sister Ismène are rigorously close to Sophocles. Anouilh even kept the embarrassed explanations of the guard hesitating to tell Creon that the body has been buried. However, Anouilh gives more stage space and density to the web of family relations around Antigone. On what has to be the last day of her life, her nanny reminds her of childhood memories. Antigone reminds Hémon of the little boy they wish to have. This makes the young woman’s death even more untimely, increasing the dramatic tension between the characters’ struggle under the hand of fate and what Antigone and the audience know to be inevitable.

It would be tempting to see Anouilh’s play as an enthusiastic defence of young, revolted Antigone, with her tired, sleepless face and her nails darkened with the soil of her brother’s grave, against old, authoritative, and bourgeois Creon. Yet many critics, Sartre included, thought Anouilh had been too kind to Creon, trying his best to save his niece from her fate, talking her into pretending nothing happened, so that she could marry Hémon, ‘give him a chubby baby boy’, and live a happy, normal life. In Sophocles’ play, Creon gives no chance of escaping to Antigone; nor does he exert physical violence against her, as in Anouilh’s play. Anouilh’s Creon is not more humane, but merely more human. Just as in Sophocles’ play, he gets carried away by his own authority. In that sense, Anouilh’s play focuses on a major aspect of Sophocles’ Theban cycle: how could mortal, finite humans deal with the god-like power of legal authority?

Sophocles’ Creon might have seemed more sympathetic to his contemporaries. He is the king, therefore the father of the city. According to the Greek laws on orphaned daughters, by marrying his son Haemon to Antigone, he loses his own heir to ensure the survival of Oedipus’s house. By refusing to bury Polynices, he inflicts a rightful punishment upon a man who attacked his own brother and, even worse, his own city. Yet just as Oedipus is struck by the hubris of law-making, ordaining a punishment that turns against him, Creon gradually gets intoxicated by his own authority. He first dismisses Antigone’s warning about the Gods’ will, then he casts out Haemon, who intercedes for Antigone in the name of the people who now side with her and object to her punishment. Seeing his father’s dismissal of the people’s voice, Haemon remarks that he is fit to rule on a desert island (l. 740) Creon accuses his son-to-be of taking the side of women against his king and father, and of turning the structure of authority upside down.  The unwritten law that Creon forgets about is the protective duty of the leader towards his people. Creon, who already overlooked the hierarchy between legitimate man-made laws and superior laws from the gods below, also overlooks the hierarchy between the voice of the people and his own.

Creon’s failure as a father to his people foreshadows his failure as a father and a husband. As Teiresias prophesied it, eventually, Creon loses his son and his wife because his obsession with his own law turns into a disruption of the general and natural order. Just as Oedipus blurred the laws of lineage, becoming a ‘begetter of brothers-sons’ (King Oedipus, l. 1400), Creon’s order to bury Antigone alive and to let Polynices rot in the open air puts the living young woman where the dead belong, and leaves the dead in the realm of the living. Sophocles’ play leads to marvel upon mankind’s seemingly limitless power to go against invisible laws, and upon the cost that comes with transgression.

Anouilh’s Antigone does not say much about owing anything to the gods. When she is asked about the reason for her gesture, she replies: ‘For nothing. For myself.’ When Créon urges her to explain her desperate gesture, all she says is that she would do it again. Her gesture towards Polynice is the last token of affection of a younger sister to a much older brother who has only been kind to her once. Anouilh creates a tense relation between Polynice and Œdipe, as Creon mentions an incident when the son punched his father in the face for refusing him money. Beyond the transposition of the family conflict into the Roaring Twenties, this memory also sketches the lack of filial piety presented in Oedipus in Colona, more vividly than the political plotting of both sons against their father. Upon hearing this, Anouilh’s Antigone maintains she would go back to finish the burial; but Anouilh adds a final blow. Creon reveals to Antigone that, after the gruesome mess of the battle, as the two brothers were disfigured, he picked the least gruesome body for the burial, not caring which one it was.

The name is torn off the corpse; Antigone’s gesture is reduced to its bareness, severed from any bond of piety or obedience. It marks the end of speech and arguing, and even the end of lyricism. As she is now sure of her useless and inevitable death, Antigone utters the first line of Sophocles’ heroine’s dirge: ‘So to my grave, my bridal bower’. The French translation’s elegiac tone strikes against the simple, unaffected prose of the play: ‘Ô Tombeau, ô lit nuptial, ô ma demeure souterraine!…’  Then Antigone stops in silence, only to whisper: ‘Toute seule’ — ‘All alone.’ It is not until then that Anouilh’s little Antigone becomes Antigone as announced by the prologue, and fulfills the programme announced in her name — against her own kin, and in front of her own kin. Antigone, ‘la petite Antigone,’ is the one who stands before her sister, her fiancé, her uncle, who all urge her to be happy, and says ‘no’.

The Résistance heard this ‘no’ as though it were her own voice — the voice of a weak minority that fought to death against a giant, knowing that the fight was hopeless. The far-right heard this ‘no’ as a symptom of self-destructive nihilism. This does not add up with one of Anouilh’s most moving monologues, where Antigone tells Ismène about her love for life: ‘who would wake up first, in the morning, just to feel the cold air on her naked skin? Who could go to bed last, just because she was exhausted, just to live one little bit more of night? Who used to cry, as a child, thinking that there were so many little beasts, so many blades of grass in the field and that one could not take them all?’

In Sophocles’ play, Creon discovers how much his niece is like her father: ‘Like father, like daughter, passionate, wild… she hasn’t learned to bend before adversity.’ Anouilh’s Antigone is more striking because she knows she is too small for her role and yet she must die ‘parce qu’elle s’appelle Antigone’ — ‘because she is named Antigone’. Many of Anouilh’s characters, like Eurydice in the eponymous play and Thérèse in La Sauvage (1942), revolt against the permanent compromise of happiness, which they consider impure, and rush towards death as a purifying fire that will cleanse them from the necessary contradictions and negotiations of life. Tragedy does not negotiate. Just as Hémon’s mother only appears on stage to die in her own appointed time, each character, from the most insignificant to the most central, has to fulfill what is written. Anouilh’s Choir says: ‘Tragedy is clean […] It is restful, because we know there is no hope, that hope, filthy hope, is no more, that one is caught like a rat, and that there is nothing left to do but to scream […] what, perchance, we didn’t even know till then. […] It is gratuitous. It is for kings.’

Anouilh’s Antigone says no and thus remains and dies in the world of tragedy; Creon says yes and leaves the stage, not in a scream of pain, maddened with grief at the cost of his own hubris as Sophocles’ Creon, but leaning on a young page, walking slowly towards the next task that must be accomplished, the next burden in the long humdrum of everyday life. Antigone must be Antigone and Creon must be Creon, because he said yes to power and to the messiness of life. None of them can step out of the road traced by fate. Behind its modern staging and its echoes of 1940s France, Anouilh’s Antigone pays tribute to Sophocles, baring the irreconcilable tensions between the individual, law, and authority. It casts a light on the cost of saying no, but also on the cost of saying yes. In either case, the self undergoes a destruction, be it slow and gradual like Creon’s, or radical and spectacular like Antigone. Although Anouilh claimed he wished to stay away from the philosophical controversies of his time, his mastery shines out in his understanding of human life as a sequence of necessary choices that have to be followed with uncompromising faithfulness. Anouilh discloses with a heart-rending simplicity that human existence is intertwined with tragedy. Whether we say yes or no, a burden of choice is laid on our shoulders, and our sole hope is to embrace the consequences of our choice — Antigone’s ‘no’ or Creon’s ‘yes’ — in full awareness and acceptance of the cost that comes with it.


Marie Daouda